Few players in history can equal the impact that Zlatan Ibrahimovic has had upon Manchester United, both for immediacy and importance. The Swedish icon, who arrived on a free transfer from Paris Saint-Germain last summer, has hit 15 Premier League goals in 24 appearances, and last weekend found the net twice to seal a 3-2 win over Southampton and secure EFL Cup victory for the Red Devils.
The 35-year-old has led the line with consistent quality performances and a steady stream of goals, and has also played a major part in winning silverware for the club. As far as debut seasons in a Manchester United shirt go, it can’t get much better. Indeed, when it comes to goals per game, only one of United’s legendary strikers can best him.
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Here, Football Whispers assesses where Zlatan ranks among Manchester United’s greatest ever strikers in terms of first-season impact. It must be noted that these rankings are made based on goals per game in each player’s first full season with the club.
10. WAYNE ROONEY – 0.4 PER GAME (17 goals in 43 appearances)
Wayne Rooney arrived at Old Trafford to great fanfare in 2004. At just 18 years of age, he was considered one of the finest young talents in world football, and Manchester United had paid just over £25 million to sign him from Everton.
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After scoring an incredible hat-trick on his debut for the club during a 6-2 win over Fenerbahce in the Champions League, Rooney went on to hit 17 goals in 43 games, achieving a strike rate of 0.4 goals per game that was remarkable for a player so young.
9. MARK HUGHES – 0.44 PER GAME (24 goals in 55 appearances)
Having graduated from Manchester United’s youth academy in 1983, Mark Hughes initially saw his route to the first team blocked by the strike duet of Frank Stapleton and Norman Whiteside. However, the departure of midfielder Ray Wilkins for AC Milan one year later saw Whiteside deployed in a deeper role, creating space for Hughes to gain a regular spot up front.
The Welshman’s first full season at the top level was a success, as he scored 24 goals in 55 appearances for a strike rate of 0.44 goals per game, helping the club to victory in the FA Cup in the process.
8. ERIC CANTONA – 0.51 PER GAME (25 goals in 49 appearances)
Eric Cantona made the controversial switch from Leeds to Manchester United in November 1992, joining Sir Alex Ferguson’s side for a fee of £1.2 million. In his first six months with the club he showcased the ingenuity and bombast he would become renowned for, though it wasn’t until his first full season at Old Trafford that the goals began to flow.
In the 1993-94 campaign, the creative Frenchman scored 25 times in 49 games throughout all competitions. Two of those goals came in a 4-0 win over Chelsea in the FA Cup final, while 18 of them came in the Premier League, which Manchester United won. For his efforts, Cantona was voted PFA Players’ Player of the Year.
7. DAVID HERD – 0.53 PER GAME (17 goals in 32 appearances)
Long before Robin van Persie left Arsenal for Manchester United in search of greater glory, David Herd completed the exact same move for the exact same reasons. The Scottish striker left the Gunners in 1961 on the back of a stunning 30-goal season, joining United for a fee of £35,000.
Herd scored frequently in his debut season for the club, achieving a goals per game rate of 0.53 having hit 17 in 32 appearances. However, he would have to wait until 1963 for his first trophy with the club.
6. DWIGHT YORKE – 0.57 PER GAME (29 goals in 51 appearances)
With his beaming smile and smooth style of play, Dwight Yorke’s clinical touch belied a laidback exterior. Despite the cool appearance, he brought a goal threat that helped power Manchester United to their famous treble in his first season with the club.
Signed for £12.6 million, Yorke had been a consistent finisher within the Premier League for Aston Villa, but took his strike rate up another level in 1998-99, finding the net 29 times in 51 outings for a rate of 0.57 goals per game. And, striking up a legendary partnership with Andy Cole, he top scored in the Premier League and the Champions League, leading United to victory in both competitions. He was then voted Premier League Player of the Season.
5. ROBIN VAN PERSIE – 0.63 PER GAME (30 goals in 48 appearances)
Just as the aforementioned Herd had done before him, Robin van Persie left Arsenal for Manchester United in 2012. The Dutchman arrived at Old Trafford for an initial £22.5 million, and proceeded to justify the fee by scoring consistently.
He won the 2012-13 Premier League Golden Boot with 26 goals, one of which – a stunning volley against Aston Villa – was awarded the BBC Goal of the Season. With 30 in 48 games all in all, van Persie scored at a rate of 0.63 per game, helping Manchester United to their last league title along the way.
4. TOMMY TAYLOR – 0.64 PER GAME (23 goals in 36 appearances)
After establishing himself with Barnsley in the old English Second Division, Tommy Taylor arrived at Manchester United in March 1953. And, after scoring seven in his first 11 games, the centre-forward continued finding the net frequently in his first full campaign with the club.
Renowned for his aerial power, the forceful Taylor hit 23 goals in 36 games during the 1953-54 season, achieving a strike rate of 0.64 goals per game.
3. DENIS LAW – 0.66 PER GAME (29 goals in 44 appearances)
After one year spent in the rigidly tactical environs of Italian football with Torino, Denis Law returned to Manchester in 1962. Except, having previously played for City, this time he would play for United.
The Scotsman took quickly to life at Old Trafford, forming an outstanding partnership with David Herd and scoring 29 goals in 44 games, a rate of 0.66 per game. His first campaign culminated in silverware, with Law hitting the opener in a 3-1 FA Cup final win over Leicester.
2. ZLATAN IBRAHIMOVIC – 0.68 PER GAME (26 goals in 38 appearances)
While his first season with Manchester United is not yet over, Zlatan is well on course to trump most of the club’s best ever strikers with his goals per game rate thus far standing at 0.68. His competitive debut ended with a trophy-winning strike, with his header securing the Community Shield against Leicester, and he also scored on his Premier League debut.
Zlatan’s double in the EFL Cup final was thus simply the latest in a long line of vital goals for the club. Yet, while his 26 in 38 appearances is impressive, he is going to have to up his strike rate if he is to hit number one on this list.
1. RUUD VAN NISTELROOY – 0.73 PER GAME (36 goals in 49 appearances)
Ruud van Nistelrooy signed for Manchester United on the back of a long spell out with a serious knee injury, but the Dutch finisher had no trouble whatsoever finding his fitness and best form in the Premier League. He found the back of the net 36 times in 49 games for an outstanding goals per game rate of 0.73.
With his instinctual nose for goal, cunning movement and composure in the final third, van Nistelrooy instantly became a crucial player for the club. And, while he couldn’t lead Manchester United to silverware in 2001-02, he personally was crowned Champions League top scorer and PFA Players’ Player of the Year.